Putnam seeks money for rural lands, firefighter raises

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Florida's agriculture commissioner wants raises next year for state forestry firefighters, as well as money to buy and maintain active farm land -- items not included in Gov. Rick Scott's recommended budget.

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, outlining his priorities to reporters this week, said he is lobbying lawmakers to include $25 million to keep the Rural and Family Lands Protection program active. Also, he wants lawmakers to provide $2,000 raises for the nearly 1,000 forestry firefighters and support staff, an idea that Scott vetoed earlier this year.

"They are deserving of this pay increase," Putnam said during a meeting with reporters Wednesday at the Capitol. "They put themselves at risk to protect lives and property in our state. And I hope we can work that through the process."

The raises are part of a $10 million request regarding the forestry department. The majority of the money would help the agency update firefighting equipment.

Overall, Putnam's Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has made a request for a 4 percent increase in funding, which includes $18.7 million to help the citrus industry and $26 million for water-quality projects and to implement and monitor agricultural "best management practices" statewide. The request also seeks to add the equivalent of eight full-time employees to oversee the agricultural "best management practices."

Putnam is also seeking $25 million for the Rural and Family Lands Protection program, which allows farmers and ranchers to continue using their land while the state is able to keep those parcels from being developed.

"It really has accounted for the bulk of the conservation purchases that have been made the last several years," Putnam said.

The current year's budget includes $15 million for the rural lands program, but Scott didn't include the program in his proposed $79.3 billion budget for the fiscal year that will start July 1.

Scott is asking for $62.8 million for the land-acquisition program Florida Forever, $188 million for work to improve the Everglades and Lake Okeechobee and another $50 million to help maintain the state's natural springs.

Earlier this year, the Legislature put about $1.6 million in the 2015-16 budget for forestry raises, but the line item was cut by Scott.

Scott told reporters after signing the overall budget in June that he has advocated for performance bonuses for state employees. However, at the same time, Scott defended $2.6 million in pay increases that were included in the budget for employees of the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles as "they're seeing a shortage of applicants, and so that was the rationale."

Putnam, who is widely expected to run for governor in 2018, said he doesn't take vetoes personally.

"(Scott's) got to make a lot of difficult decisions," Putnam said. "Sometimes you like them. Sometimes you're disappointed in them. And we're just going to continue to work hard and make our case."

Putnam is backing a compromise water-policy proposal (SB 552 and HB 7005) that is expected to be among the first issues brought up for votes in the House and Senate when the regular session begins Jan. 12. He also is seeking $15 million to help improve water coming into and out of Lake Okeechobee and $7 million for the northern Everglades and the state's natural springs.

The northern Everglades and springs funding would be tied to cost-sharing programs with farmers to better manage runoff and to conserve water, Putnam said.

Putnam also defended the Legislature's plan this year for carrying out a voter-approved initiative that calls for setting aside money for land and water conservation.

The initiative, known as Amendment 1, requires 33 percent of an existing tax on real-estate documents to go to land buying and maintenance.

Two lawsuits have been filed that contend the legislature's use of $237 million of the Amendment 1 money in the current year was improperly diverted from conservation purposes to agency staffing and operational expenses.

Putnam said Amendment 1 shouldn't be "a candy jar," but that people should expect that some money will be used for the upkeep of public lands.

"In managing a world-class state park system, there is an expectation that the bathrooms will work, that the roads will be in passable shape for the average minivan not to get stuck, that hiking trails will be safe, that bridges -- where there are bridges -- will be safe," Putnam said. "Those are legitimate Amendment 1 expenses."